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Lisbon

Affordable prices and an alluring combination of sunny skies, glorious architecture, deep-rooted traditions, and thoroughly modern flair have made Lisbon into a top destination for travelers. Record numbers of cruise ships are now docking at the revamped port, and Lisbon has gained a reputation as one of the best spots on the continent for live music—from rock to jazz and classical—with many events held in the city’s numerous leafy green spaces. Famously built on seven hills, Lisbon’s terra-cotta-roofed homes, turreted castles and cathedrals, and gleaming white basilicas appear to tumble down the cobbled slopes towards the glimmering River Tagus, as visitors traverse the city on antique, rattling streetcars, modern tuk tuks, and Segways.

Lisbon has embraced change without casting aside its much-loved heritage. Colorful murals on every corner make it one of the best cities in Europe to see street art, while white sheets flap from the windows of the tightly packed hillside homes of Moorish Alfama. Boutique hotels sit beside hole-in-the-wall bars where locals sip ginjinha and strong espresso as they nibble on the world’s most irresistible custard tarts. The mournful sound of fado music still draws huge crowds of locals and visitors, even as hip bars and clubs move into formerly run-down areas of town. UNESCO World Heritage Sites sit proudly in the postcard-perfect suburb of Belém, the site from which Vasco da Gama and his fellow explorers set out during the much-celebrated Age of Discovery.

Counting some of Europe’s finest galleries, museums and cultural centers, and a vast aquarium among its indoor attractions, Lisbon has plenty to offer, even under rainy skies. An increasingly sophisticated dining scene is building on a growing appreciation for Portuguese food, with its abundant fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, and the astonishingly affordable wines that seem to accompany every meal. The relatively compact size of the city means it is possible to pack a lot into a short break, and visitors with the luxury of a longer stay can find fairy-tale mountain towns, rolling wine country, dolphin-filled bays, and long, white-sand beaches within less than an hour’s reach. Despite the rising costs that have accompanied the tourism boom, prices for most goods and services are still lower than most other European countries. You can still find affordable places to eat and stay, and with distances between major sights fairly small, taxis are astonishingly cheap. All this means that Lisbon is not only a treasure chest of historical monuments but also a place where you won’t use up all your own hard-earned treasure.

POINTS OF INTEREST

MOSTEIRO DOS JERÓNIMOS

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a supreme example of the Manueline style of building (named after King Dom Manuel I), which represented a marked departure from earlier Gothic architecture. Much of it is characterized by elaborate sculptural details, often with a maritime motif. João de Castilho was responsible for the southern portal, which forms the main entrance to the church: the figure on the central pillar is Henry the Navigator. Inside, the spacious interior contrasts with the riot of decoration on the six nave columns and complex latticework ceiling. This is the resting place of both explorer Vasco da Gama and national poet Luís de Camões. Don’t miss the Gothic- and Renaissance-style double cloister, also designed to stunning effect by Castilho.

TORRE DE BELÉM

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the openwork balconies, and domed turrets of the fanciful Belém Tower make it perhaps the country’s purest Manueline structure. It was built between 1514 and 1520 on what was an island in the middle of the Rio Tagus, to defend the port entrance, and dedicated to St. Vincent, the patron saint of Lisbon. Today the chalk-white tower stands near the north bank—evidence of the river’s changing course. Cross the wood gangway and walk inside to admire the cannons and descend to the former dungeons, before climbing the steep, narrow, winding staircase to the top of the tower for a bird’s-eye view across the Tagus and over the city.

MUSEU NACIONAL DOS COCHES (NATIONAL COACH MUSEUM)

In a former royal riding school with a gorgeous painted ceiling, the National Coach Museum has a dazzling collection of gloriously gilded horse-drawn carriages. The oldest on display was made for Philip II of Spain in the late 1500s; the most stunning are three conveyances created in Rome for King John V in 1716. The museum, Portugal’s most visited, is right next door to the official residence of the president of the Republic, whose Museu da Presidência tells the story of the presidency, profiles the officeholders, and displays gifts they have received on state visits. The Coach Museum has recently moved across the road into a purpose-built structure designed by Brazilian Pritzker Prize winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha; it was inaugurated in May 2015. The sunny terrace of the bar and restaurant Cavalo Lusitano is a pleasant place for post-sightseeing snacks and drinks.

PALÁCIO DA AJUDA

In 1802 construction began on the Ajuda Palace, which was intended as a royal residence. Its last regal occupant (Queen Maria) died here in 1911, and the fixtures and fittings are preserved just as they were during royal occupancy. Today, the ornate neoclassical building functions as a museum. Visitors can take a peek at how Portuguese monarchs lived, as well as admire 18th- and 19th-century paintings, furniture, and tapestries. It is also used for official ceremonies and functions by the Presidency of the Republic, and one wing houses the government’s Culture department. It’s a 20-minute walk up Calçada da Ajuda from the Museu Nacional dos Coches, or, from downtown, Tram 18 stops outside the palace.

MUSEU DE MARINHA

One of Lisbon’s oldest museums (it was founded in 1853), the large, navy-run Maritime Museum showcases the importance of the seafaring tradition in Portugal. With its thousands of maps and maritime codes, navigational equipment, full-size and model ships, uniforms, and weapons, the museum appeals to visitors young and old.

MUSEU DO ORIENTE

Housed in a former bacalhau (salted cod) cold store with impressive bas reliefs on its facade, the Museo do Oriente opened in 2008 and has become one of Lisbon’s most important cultural institutions. Funded by the Fundação Oriente (a legacy of colonial Macau and its gaming revenues), this dockside giant seeks both to tell the story of the centuries-long Portuguese presence in Asia and to provide a showcase for Asian cultures. Highlights of the permanent collections include unique maps and charts from the golden age of Portuguese maritime exploration and stunning Chinese and Japanese painted screens. The museum hosts excellent, inexpensive concerts in its cozy auditorium, and organizes a plethora of cooking and crafts workshops.

PADRÃO DOS DESCOBRIMENTOS

The white, monolithic Monument of the Discoveries was erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. It was built on what was the departure point for many voyages of discovery, including those of Vasco da Gama for India and—during Spain’s occupation of Portugal—of the Spanish Armada for England in 1588. Henry is at the prow of the monument, facing the water; lined up behind him are the Portuguese explorers of Brazil and Asia, as well as other national heroes. On the ground adjacent to the monument, an inlaid map shows the extent of the explorations undertaken by the 15th- and 16th-century Portuguese sailors. Walk inside and take the elevator to the top for river views.

PLANETÁRIO CALOUSTE GULBENKIAN

Although it’s looking a little run-down, the Calouste Gulbenkian Planetarium presents interesting astronomical films with various themes several times a week. Headphones can be used to translate the presentations into English. A full program of events and screenings can be found on the website.

JARDIM BOTÂNICO DA AJUDA

Portugal’s oldest botanical garden—laid out in 1768 by the Italian botanist Domenico Vandelli (1735–1816)—is an enjoyable place to spend an hour or so. You can stroll up here from the river at Belém, or take Tram 18 from Cais do Sodré station (it terminates near here). Ornate fountains and strolling peacocks create a sense of splendor, and many species of flora, labeled in Latin, can be viewed in several greenhouses covering 4 acres. The larger Jardim Botânico Tropical at the bottom of the hill, whose entrance is just opposite the Mosterio dos Jerónimos, was created later and contains hundreds of species from the Azores, Madeira, and Portugal’s former colonies.

PONTE 25 DE ABRIL

Lisbon’s first suspension bridge across the Rio Tejo, linking the Alcântara and Almada districts, stands 230 feet above the water and stretches almost 2½ km (1½ miles). Reminiscent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, it’s somewhat smaller but still a spectacular sight from any direction, although most gasps are reserved for the view from the top downward. Overlooking the bridge from a hill on the south bank is the Cristo Rei (Christ the King) statue, which is smaller and stiffer than Rio’s more famous Redeemer. The observation deck, from where you can actually look down on the bridge, is open daily. To get here, catch Bus 101 (on the hour and half hour) from the south-bank ferry station of Cacilhas.

CASTELO DE SÃO JORGE

Although St. George’s Castle was constructed by the Moors, the site had previously been fortified by Romans and Visigoths. To your left as you pass through the main entrance is a statue of Dom Afonso Henriques, whose forces in 1147 besieged the castle and drove the Moors from Lisbon. The ramparts offer panoramic views of the city’s layout as far as the towering Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge; be careful of the uneven footing. Remnants of a palace that was a residence of the kings of Portugal until the 16th-century house a snack bar, a small museum showcasing archeological finds, and beyond them a stately restaurant, the Casa do Leão, offering dining with spectacular sunset views. From the periscópio (periscope) in the Torre de Ulísses, in the castle’s keep, you can spy on visitors going about their business below. Beyond the keep, traces of pre-Roman and Moorish houses are visible thanks to recent archaeological digs, as well as the remains of a palace founded in the 15th century. The castle’s outer walls encompass a small neighborhood, Castelo, the medieval church of Santa Cruz, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

MUSEU NACIONAL DO AZULEJO

A tile museum might not sound thrilling, but this magnificent museum dedicated to Lisbon’s eye-catching azulejos is one of the Alfama’s top tourist attractions—and with good reason. Housed in the16th-century Madre de Deus convent and cloister, displays range from individual glazed tiles to elaborate pictorial panels. The 118-foot Panorama of Lisbon (1730) is a detailed study of the city and waterfront and is reputedly the country’s longest azulejo piece. The richly furnished convent church contains some sights of its own: of note are the gilt baroque decoration and lively azulejo works depicting the life of St. Anthony. There are also a little café-bar and a gift shop that sells tile reproductions.

MUSEU MILITAR

The spirit of heroism is palpable in the huge Corinthian-style barracks and arsenal complex of the Military Museum, which houses one of the largest artillery collections in the world. Visitors can ogle a 20-ton bronze cannon and admire Vasco de Gama’s sword in a room dedicated to the explorer and his voyages of discovery. As you clatter through endless, echoing rooms of weapons, uniforms, and armor, you may be lucky enough to be followed—at a respectful distance—by a guide who, without speaking a word of English, can convey exactly how that bayonet was jabbed or that gruesome flail swung. In this beautifully ornate building, there is also a collection of 18th- to 20th-century art. The museum is on the eastern edge of the Alfama, at the foot of the hill and opposite the Santa Apolónia station.

ROSSIO

The formal name for this grand public square is Praça Dom Pedro IV, but locals prefer to call it by its former name, Rossio. Built in the 13th century as Lisbon’s main public space, it remains a bustling social hub and, traffic noise aside, it’s still a grand public space where lively crowds gather to socialize among baroque fountains beneath a statue of Dom Pedro atop a towering column. Visitors can admire the dramatic wave-pattern cobblestones (famously reconstructed on the beach promenades of Rio de Janeiro) and soak up the sense of drama. The square was founded as the largest public space in the city and has seen everything from bullfights and musical performances to public executions. During the Portuguese Inquisition, it was the setting for public autos-da-fé. The site of the gruesome procedures is now occupied by the imposing 19th-century Teatro Nacional (National Theater). On nearby Largo de São Domingos, where thousands were burned, there’s a memorial to Jewish victims of the Inquisition. Today, locals come here to relax with a newspaper, have their boots polished by the shoe shiners, or sip a ginjinha (traditional sour-cherry liqueur) at one of the bars. Tourists come to sip somewhat overpriced coffees and snacks at the café-bars that flank the square, and protestors come to loudly but respectfully state their political case. Another suitably grand building houses downtown’s main train station, which is the starting point for trips to Sintra.

NÚCLEO ARQUEOLOGICO DA RUA DOS CORREEIROS

More than 2,500 years of history has been uncovered at this archaeological treasure trove hidden beneath a bank on one of Lisbon’s busiest shopping streets. The buried network of tunnels occupies almost a whole block in Lisbon’s historic center and was unearthed in the 1990s during excavation works carried out by Millennium BCP, the bank to whom the site belongs. The digs revealed homes and artifacts from the Roman, Visigoth, Islamic, medieval, and Pombaline periods, and much of the space appears to have been used as a major-scale Roman fish-salting factory. It was later used as a Christian burial ground, and there’s even a well-preserved skeleton to be seen. Free guided visits (in English or Portuguese) lead visitors through underground walkways, catching a glimpse of how post-earthquake foundations were laid for the Pombaline buildings that still stand proud today. Free tours in English leave roughly every two hours, on the hour; arrive at least 30 minutes before to book your place, as space is (quite literally) limited.

CONVENTO DO CARMO

The Carmelite Convent—once Lisbon’s largest—was all but ruined by the 1755 earthquake, and its skeletal remains are stark reminders of the quake’s devastating impact. Its sacristy houses the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo (Archaeological Museum), a small collection of ceramic tiles, medieval tombs, ancient coins, and other city finds. The tree-shaded square outside is accessible via a walkway from the top of the Elevador da Santa Justa —is a great place to dawdle over a coffee.

MUSEU DA FARMÁCIA

The Museum of Pharmacy, within an old palace, covers more than 5,000 years of pharmaceutical history, from prehistoric cures to the fantastic world of fictive potions à la Harry Potter. Ancient objects related to pharmaceutical science and art—from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Roman, and Incan civilizations—are on display in well-lighted showcases, as are those from Europe. Whole pharmacies have been transported here intact from other parts of Portugal, even a traditional 19th-century Chinese drugstore from Portugal’s former territory of Macau. There’s also a smart bar and restaurant called Pharmacia that serves lunch and dinner as well as afternoon petiscos, tasty Portuguese bar snacks.

ELEVADOR DA GLÓRIA

One of the finest approaches to the Bairro Alto is via this funicular railway inaugurated in 1888 on the western side of Avenida da Liberdade, near Praça dos Restauradores. It runs up the steep hill and takes only about a minute to reach the São Pedro de Alcântara Miradouro, a viewpoint that looks out over the castle and the Alfama.

MUSEU NACIONAL DE ARTE CONTEMPORÂNEA

Also known as the Museu do Chiado, this museum—built on the site of a monastery—specializes in Portuguese art from 1850 to the present day, covering various movements: Romanticism, Naturalism, Surrealism, and Modernism. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions of paintings, sculpture, and multimedia installations, as well as summer jazz concerts in its small walled garden.

MUSEU NACIONAL DE ARTE ANTIGA

On route from the center of Lisbon to Belém is this impressive art museum, housed in a 17th-century palace once owned by the counts of Alvor. The museum has a beautifully displayed collection of Portuguese art, mainly from the 15th through 19th centuries.

The religious works of the Flemish-influenced Portuguese school stand out, especially Nuno Gonçalves’s masterpiece, the St. Vincent Panels. Painted between 1467 and 1470, the altarpiece has six panels believed to show the patron saint of Lisbon receiving the homage of king, court, and citizens (although there are other theories). Sixty figures have been identified, including Henry the Navigator; the archbishop of Lisbon; and sundry dukes, fishermen, knights, and religious figures. In the top left corner of the two central panels is a figure purported to be Gonçalves himself.

The museum also boasts early Flemish works that influenced the Portuguese, and other European artists are well represented, such as Hieronymous Bosch, Hans Holbein, Brueghel the Younger, and Diego Velázquez. There are also extensive collections of French silver, Portuguese furniture and tapestries, Asian ceramics, and items fashioned from Goan ivory. Tram 15 from Praça do Comércio drops you at the foot of a steep flight of steps below the museum.

MUSEU DA MARIONETA

The intricate workmanship that went into the creation of the puppets on display at this museum is remarkable, and it’s not just kids’ stuff: during the Salazar regime, puppet shows were used to mock the pretensions and corruption of the politicians. The collection encompasses both Portuguese and foreign figurines. Puppet shows are often staged in the former chapel at varying times; check the website or phone for details. The Museu da Marioneta is in the old fishermen’s district of Madragoa, not far from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.

BASÍLICA DA ESTRELA

A standout on Lisbon’s skyline, this gleaming white basilica was built in the baroque and neoclassical styles, and its location at the top of one of Lisbon’s seven hills makes for dramatic views from its rococo zimbório (dome). It was built at the end of the 18th century under the command of Queen Maria I (whose tomb lies within the building) to fulfill a religious promise she made in praying (ultimately successfully) for a male heir. The interior is striking, too, with black-and-pink marble walls and floors, and a famously elaborate nativity scene. Displayed year-round, the scene comprises some 500 figures and was created by the sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro. Just across the road is the leafy Jardim da Estrela, one of Lisbon’s loveliest green spaces. Stroll the shaded paths and then pull up a chair in the café for a drink or a snack. Estrela is a short walk west of Largo do Rato, where the metro’s yellow line terminates. You can also take the scenic route on Tram 28 from Praça Luís de Camões in the Chiado neighborhood; you’ll pass through the São Bento district, dominated by Portugal’s grand parliament building (yet another former monastery) on the way.

OCEANÁRIO DE LISBOA

Europe’s largest indoor aquarium wows children and adults alike with a vast saltwater tank featuring a massive array of fish, including several types of shark. Along the way you pass through habitats representing the North Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, where puffins and penguins dive into the water, sea otters roll and play, and tropical birds flit past you. You then descend to the bottom of the tank to watch rays float past gracefully and schools of silvery fish darting this way and that. To avoid the crowds, come during the week or early in the day. The Oceanário also hosts a range of activities outside normal opening hours, such as Saturday-morning concerts for kids under age three, against the lively backdrop of the central tank. Book online to skip the lines and get a 10% discount.

CASTELO DOS MOUROS

The battlemented ruins of this 9th-century castle still give a fine impression of the fortress that finally fell to Christian forces led by Dom Afonso Henriques in 1147. It’s visible from various points in Sintra itself, but for a closer look follow the steps that lead up to the ruins from the back of the town center (40 minutes going up, 25 minutes coming down). Alternatively, you can catch the SCOTTurb’s Bus 434 or rent a horse-drawn carriage or tuk tuk in town. Panoramic views from the serrated walls explain why the Moors chose the site.

PALÁCIO NACIONAL DE SINTRA

The conical twin white chimneys of Sintra Palace are the town’s most recognizable landmarks. There has probably been a palace here since Moorish times, although the current structure—also known as the Paço Real—dates to the late 14th century. It is the only surviving royal palace in Portugal from the Middle Ages and displays a combination of Moorish, Gothic, and Manueline architecture. Bilingual descriptions in each room let you enjoy them at your own pace. The chapel has Mozarabic (Moorish-influenced) azulejos from the 15th and 16th centuries. The ceiling of the Sala das Armas is painted with the coats of arms of 72 noble families, and the grand Sala dos Cisnes has a remarkable ceiling of painted swans. The Sala das Pegas (magpies) figures in a well-known tale about Dom João I (1385–1433) and his dalliance with a lady-in-waiting. The king had the room painted with as many magpies as there were chattering court ladies, thus satirizing the gossips as loose-tongued birds.

PALÁCIO DA PENA

This Disney-like castle is a glorious conglomeration of turrets and domes awash in pastels. In 1503 the Monastery of Nossa Senhora da Pena was constructed here, but it fell into ruins after religious orders were expelled from Portugal in 1832. Seven years later the ruins were purchased by Maria II’s consort, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg. Inspired by the Bavarian castles of his homeland, Ferdinand commissioned a German architect, Baron Eschwege, to build the castle of his fantasies, in styles that range from Arabian to Victorian. Work was finished in 1885, by which time he was Fernando II. The surrounding park is filled with trees and flowers from every corner of the Portuguese empire, as well as hidden temples, grottoes, and Valley of the Lakes, where black swans sit regally. Portugal’s last monarchs used the Pena Palace as a summer home, the last of whom—Queen Amália—went into exile in England after the Republic was proclaimed on October 5, 1910. Inside is an ostentatious and often bizarre collection of Victorian and Edwardian furniture, ornaments, and paintings. Placards explain each room. Visitors can walk along high castle walls, peek into turrets, and finally reward themselves with a drink and a snack at one of two on-site cafés. A path beyond an enormous statue (thought to be Baron Eschwege, cast as a medieval knight) on a nearby crag leads to the Cruz Alta, a 16th-century stone cross 1,782 feet above sea level, with stupendous views.

FESTIVAL DE SINTRA

Sintra’s music and dance festival takes place during early summer (usually May or June) at the Centro Cultural Olga Cadaval as well as in the many palaces and gardens around Sintra and Queluz: Palácio Nacional de Sintra, Pena Palace, Quinta da Regaleira, Quinta da Piedade, Palácio de Seteais, and Queluz Palace. The Gulbenkian Symphony Orchestra and the Gulbenkian Ballet company as well as other international groups perform at the Olga Cadaval Cultural Center. The gardens of the Seteais Palace are well-known for their open-air ballet and classical music performances. Tickets can be bought online or at AskMe Sintra and AskMe Lisboa tourist-information offices.

MONSERRATE PARK AND PALACE

This estate, 2½ miles west of Sintra, was laid out by Scottish gardeners in the mid-19th century at the behest of a wealthy Englishman, Sir Francis Cook. The centerpiece is the Moorish-style, three-dome Palácio de Monserrate. The original palace was built by the Portuguese viceroy of India, and was later home to Gothic novelist William Beckford. A regular ticket allows you to visit the park and part of the palace, and there are guided 1½-hour tours available at various times throughout the day. The gardens, with their streams, waterfalls, and Etruscan tombs, are famed for an array of tree and plant species, though labels are lacking.